Blair a local hero in a country still stunned by war
TEN YEARS after the end of a war which left Sierra Leone, a once-promising West African country, economically bankrupt and morally drained, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, aka Tony Blair, stays on as ‘ local hero’ in the minds and lives of most Sierra Leoneans.
“He’s my hero,” the general manager of the Sierra Leone News Agency, Augustus Kamara, told me at the end of a Government/Commonwealth Secretariat-sponsored Media and Development in a Post-Conflict Sierra Leone Forum held at Freetown from 23-27 January.
Amazement must have registered on my face.
“I named my third child after Tony Blair who was Prime Minister of Britain in 2000,” he said while showing a group of journalists around his offices in downtown Freetown. “That man had the courage to defy the world and send nearly 1,000 British to my country. The British and UN peacekeepers – 17,000 in all – disarmed tens of thousands of rebels and ended a terrible war that has ruined everything.”
He said: “I never saw people getting their hands and legs chopped up by rebels but it happened only six miles from this office.” He peered out of the window towards a nearby Anglican church and thousands of brightly clad people passing by, many of them school age children. “Today, you can see amputees everywhere you go. But things are starting to improve. Look outside – children going to school, people look better fed, they have more confidence. We have to put the past behind us and begin again and Tony Blair helped us do that.”
And … “When we get a new Chinese-built airport in Sierra Leone, I want it to be called The Tony Blair International Airport. I will lobby for that.”
In a country almost full of Muslims with rich Arabic-sounding first names how did his son’s peers react, I asked.
“My third son was born in May 2001. When I read Tony Blair’s book My Journey, I saw that he was also born in May (1953) so we gave him all of the great man’s names – Anthony Charles Lynton Blair … Kamara. My son is now 11 years old and he’s very proud of his name. Sometimes people call me ‘Tony Blair’ in the street. I like that very much.”
I said: “I think Tony Blair’s more popular in your country than he is in mine (England).”
Mr Kamara, a veteran journalist who lived through the worst days of the Sierre Leone ‘blood diamonds’ war which left so many dead and even more suffering today from undiagnosed and unhealed post-traumatic stress disorders, looked at me as if I’d landed from another planet.
Those of a certain age in Sierra Leone 2012, remember Tony Blair as a man of principle and courage who dared defy his critics by sending soldiers into Freetown in 2000 whose military expertise and daring scared away drug and alcohol-fuelled teenage gangs whose trademark was to cut the hands, arms, feet and legs off civilians.
Walk along the magnificent beaches outside the capital and see what I saw.
Dozens of young men on crutches, somehow smiling and laughing, ambitious young soccer players who not only admire Tony Blair but who idolize David Beckham who bothered to fly to Freetown and hold a series of soccer clinics for people without arms and legs who love the Beautiful Game.
“Tony Blair … David Beckham … Wayne Rooney … Man U… we love them all,” said one man in his twenties. He had no feet and was swinging himself along on crutches with a group of friends, the same age, the same problem.
Blair’s political courage and Britain’s military expertise restored security to Sierra Leone.
What’s needed now is a mood of national confidence and realistic plans to re-vitalise the economy.
Unemployment and widespread corruption hold back development in this diamonds and other minerals rich nation of just under six million people – about 50 per cent of them under the age of 15.
And one of Sierra Leone’s most urgent problems lies untouched – how to heal as many as 500,000 men, women and children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders which include widespread drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to sleep or work … maybe even to love or show affection.
AT THE Commonwealth sponsored Media and Development Conference, that matter was raised when a delegate from the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) asked how the Commonwealth could help – possibly by sending in trained psychiatric doctors and nurses on a voluntary basis.
Sierra Leone has only one trained psychiatrist.
The well-respected Dr Julius Spencer, a former Minister of Information and one of the country’s leading newspaper proprietors, rose and replied:
“Post traumatic stress disorder?
“We don’t recognize the problem. We don’t think post-traumatic stress disorders exist. When someone’s behaving abnormally we say – Oh, he’s just mad. We laugh at him. We taunt them on the streets. They throw stones at them. If you look at some of the people roaming the streets, you can easily recognize the signs.
“There’s one guy in my area where I live who always dresses like a soldier. He will take a stick, carves it like a weapon and hangs it on his shoulder and then you look and see he’s wearing … what do you call them … a sort of bullet-proof jacket and he stands on the same spot every day, not moving. That guy was obviously a combatant or had some experience with combatants that made him lose his mind.”
He added: “Sierra Leone today is very prone to violence. Some who were combatants knew you could get what you wanted by violent means during the war. People still think you can get anything you want by violence. And there has been a collapse of culture and our religious beliefs. We don’t tell stories to our children any more. They contained moral lessons, how to behave properly. Now, they’re left on their own to watch television and movies. Blue movies are shown at 2 a.m. in those small video halls up and down the country. Children don’t go to school and they go instead and watch these films. There’s no regulation. There’s no control.”
With great sadness in his voice and with words that deeply moved conference delegates, who included the Botswana-born Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, and the Commonwealth Acting Director of Communications and Public Affairs, Kenya-born Manoah Esipisu, he said:
“As soon as a war breaks out, or ends, in Africa some British journalist has written a book about it. When it comes to telling the full horror of what happened to Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002 we keep quiet. I have kept quiet. It’s time Sierra Leoneans told their own story.”
DURING my brief stay in Freetown, I was hosted by the Chinese-managed Bintumani Hotel which was the headquarters of rebels during the war.
A strange, unhappy, disturbing, atmosphere pervaded despite the Chinese decorations (and food) and a TV set that seemed to be on 24 hours a day during the Africa Cup Football Competition that went on while we were in Sierra Leone.
Buildings, like us, have memories.
On the last day I had lunch with a friend from The Gambia.
During the meal a woman in her 40s or 50s came to our table and yelled at me. I was stunned. What had I said, what had I done to cause offence?
She was hauled away by hotel guards and a policeman and pushed – roughly – into the hotel garden and then told to get away from the building. Guards with guns shouted in Krio that she was mad.
Later, my Gambian colleague explained what happened.
The woman had been told we were journalists.
She told us, in a terrible state of emotion in a language I did not understand, that a long time ago in the mid-1990s she had brought her children to this place. They had been taken away. She never saw them again.
Where are they? Help me find them?
I finished my beer and ate my rice and chicken and remembered what Dr Spencer said the day before: “We throw stones at them. . .we taunt them . . .we say that they are mad. Traumatic stress disorder. We don’t admit it exists.”